Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Ending art forgery

Detail from “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” by Johannes Vermeer van Delft. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rene Chun, These Four Technologies May Finally Put an End to Art Forgery, Artsy, 18 July 2016

Like method actors and bearded brewmasters, the best art forgers are obsessed with authenticity. But thanks to a handful of new authentication technologies, even history’s most painstaking efforts w uldn’t stump today’s art sleuths.

Take Han van Meegeren, the most successful knockoff artist of the pre-war period. Adjusted for inflation, he made $30 million selling ersatz Dutch masters. Curators weren’t fooled just because the paintings looked perfect. (In fact, his Vermeers looked decidedly imperfect.) They were fooled because the art passed a crude forensic sniff test: every detail was “period correct.” He tracked down 17th-century canvases and stretchers. He duplicated Vermeer’s badger-hair brushes. And, in a stroke of OCD genius, he hand-ground exotic raw pigments following archaic formulas—no skimping allowed. Because faking Vermeer’s gorgeous signature paint would feel like cheating.

Today’s art authenticators have enough weapons in their arsenal—infrared spectroscopy, radiometric dating, gas chromatography—to spot a van Meegeren long before it hits the auction block. Many of these lab tests, though, are decades old, ample time for forgers to study the science and incremental improvements, perfect new counter-measures, and game the system.

Here’s the good news: The balance of power in the forgery detection game is about to shift. The art world has been closely monitoring scientific breakthroughs in fields as diverse as A.I., bitcoin, and protein analysis, and the technologies born from this research have either been appropriated by authenticators or will be soon. With these extra layers of security added to the vetting process, the current generation of copycat artists will find it increasingly difficult to hoodwink museum directors and collectors. Listen carefully, art patrons: That’s the sound of badger-hair brushes being turned into kindling.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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